A new toon in the gallery of cranky sociologists: Saskia Sassen, thanks to The Cranky Sociologists’s cartoonist-in-chief, Kevin Moore:

saskia_sassen

 

I have long been a big fan of Saskia Sassen’s work. You can read my review of her latest book, Expulsions, here. Sassen gave us the concept of the global city, a place where global flows congregate and clash (as is reflected in the toon above), where the extreme power of the processes of global capitalism encounter the expelled elements of it.

It is also in Sassen’s sociology that one can read about how the nation-states have not disappeared under global conditions, but have reconfigured themselves as part of global assemblages that contribute to global processes, and do indeed process global mechanisms at the national level. The very concept of assemblage is one that is important in Sassen’s work as it brings together elements that are usually conceptualized separately. Again, it is something demonstrated in an accessible manner in Expulsions. I cannot recommend that book enough as, I think it is a highly readable entry point into Sassen’s work. Then, one can work one’s way into more complex work.

ExpulsionsEvery new book by Saskia Sassen is always a small event for me, since she is one of my favorite contemporary sociologist. This one is no exception. Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy is a bit shorter than Sassen’s usual length but it has the usual “big picture” and dense writing that are characteristic of her style. Sassen is both an empirical and theoretical sociologist, so, every book of hers, marshalls a deep conceptual apparatus to explain disparate occurrences (or thick realities, as she calls them in this book). She sees these distinct and not-entirely similar trends are subterranean expressions of larger assemblages driven by a dual logic of inclusion / expulsion within the global context. However, this is ground-level work.

That’s a mouthful but that is the general idea and throughout the book, Sassen uses a variety of datasets and case studies to make her points, exploring in greater details four visual expressions of this inclusion / expulsion logic:

  1. shrinking of the economic spaces,
  2. the new rush for African land,
  3. financialization of everything,
  4. environmental destruction.

In all these four domains, we found the same logic of inclusion (something brought onto the global capitalist system) / expulsion (the exclusion and marginalization of the “losers” of the inclusion logic). Since the point of the book is to make the logic of expulsions visible, the focus is on extreme cases. However, because expulsion is the flip side of inclusion, it can occur in a context of economic growth, and therefore, remain deceptively out of sight. In addition, the inclusion / expulsion duality is often overlaid with a complexity / elementarity (yes, that’s a word, I checked) duality where complex mechanisms (such as financial instruments concocted by high-level mathematicians, and comprehensible by only a few) led to the elementary logic of expulsion (mass foreclosures).

The resulting expulsions Sassen define as elementary brutalities produced by complexity. Such complexity comes in various forms (again, financial instruments, structural adjustment programs, “free trade” contracts that lead to land dispossession, complex resource extraction technologies), through various institutions and organizational forms, but they lead to expulsions all the same, and acute ones at that.

But no matter what specific form such expulsions take, they all are part of a mechanism of what Sassen calls ‘savage sorting‘: the sorting of who will matter and be counted in economic indicators, and who will not and be sentence to live at what Sassen calls the systemic edge.

First, Sassen identifies the latest shift in capitalist accumulation with the 1980s. This is a familiar story: the end of the post-War period with its focus on redistribution, inclusion, social protections, etc. Reaganomics-type of economic policy in Western countries, the “lost decade” in the Global South led to an inversion of inequality dynamics with increasing concentration of income and wealth at the top and stagnation for the rest of social classes. Such a reversion of the “Trente Glorieuses” was not a conspiracy of the elites but also a systemic product of institutional, organizational, and technological processes. Not only that but this concentration could, for the first real time, be scaled up to a truly global level. This complex mix, Sassen calls a predatory formation.

But then, what Sassen is really interested in is not the nth statistical description of increased inequality and/or poverty. What she points to is something akin to a statistical ethnic cleansing where the expelled from shrunk (yet growing) economies are simply no longer visible (hence the picture of growth). The economic space is shrunk by pushing out the marginalized, those who no longer receive unemployment benefits, those who leave, those who are incarcerated, those who have committed suicide. Most of these things have happened or are happening in one way or the other, Sassen often uses the extreme example of Greece after the 2007 economic collapse: Greece underwent several waves of austerity imposed by the EU and its economy was pronounced as recovering because the measures and indices that are supposed to show such recovery actually ignore the social collapse.

So, on the one hand, there is the measured corporatized economy, now existing as a shrunk space, after divestment from social-contract, social-welfare-related expenses. It is not hard to see this is exactly what has happened to the countries subjected to austerity programs imposed from the EU:

“It leads one to wonder if this brutal restructuring was undertaken precisely in order to achieve a smaller but workable economic space that would show growth in GDP according to traditional metrics — even if it necessitates the expulsion from the economy, and its measures, of significant shares of the workforce and the small business sector. After all, a mere hint of GDP growth can be a positive signal to investors and financial markets, and this is a key achievement from the perspective of current IMF and European Central Bank policy — and not only in the EU. The alternative survival economies that are emerging exist in a different economic space, one that falls outside formal measures and indicators. For now they are not enough to meet the needs of the expelled and of the merely impoverished.” (43)

To put it simply, the logic of displacement looks like this:

Displacement (1)

This combination of shrinking of economic space / expulsion has occurred irrespective of the political / economic systems in place. For instance, if one look at incarceration in the United States, one can see a mix of privatization and deregulation (that is, the opening up of a market / corporate space), along with systemic racism and massive expulsion. But all of elements in the image above are the product of predatory formations that are themselves a mix of different institutional, organization, and technological mechanisms. On the face of it, they may look very different from each other and unrelated, but once reconceptualized as part of such logic of inclusion / expulsion, they bear some very Wittgensteinian family resemblances.

Sassen also demonstrates that the same logic of inclusion / expulsion is at work in the current land grab made necessary by (1) the rise in demand for industrial crops, such as biofuels, and food crops, and (2) growing interest from global investors (hence the rise in food prices). On the ground, this means the expulsion of small farmers, who then join the legions of urban poor, themselves expelled from the economic growth of the global cities, creating what Mike Davis had nicknamed Planet of Slums.

At the same time, this mass acquisition of land in the Global South was made possible because the IMF and the World Bank have used debt reduction as part of a disciplining regime, that was, again, supposed to integration countries of the Global South into the global economy, but resulted in elementary expulsions, as governments from these countries had to agree to conditions akin to austerity programs (the infamous structural adjustment programs). Sassen describes at length the mechanisms of land acquisition in the context of the discipline-through debt reduction.

A similar logic is at work in the financialization of everything that was so central to the crisis of 2008:

“The financialization of a growing number of economic sectors since the 1980s has become both a sign of power of this financial logic and the sign that it is exhausting its growth potential in the current phase, insofar as finance needs to use and invade other economic sectors in order to grow. Once it has subjected much of the economy to its logic, it reaches some type of limit, and the downward curve is likely to set in. One acute illustration of this is the development of instruments by some financial firms that allow them simultaneously to bet on growth in a sector and bet against that sector.” (137)

This is also a well known story and it is not hard to see the expulsions it created. The best documentary on that subject is Inside Job which does a good job of showing the globally-interrelated dynamics that created the pre-crisis situation: Wall Street, US academia, global investors, pension funds (local, national, and global), etc.

Finally, Sassen turns to her last form of expulsion: expulsion from the biosphere. The anthropocene era means that humans are having an irreversible effect on the biosphere’s ability to regenerate. This leads to the creation of dead landscapes through a variety of human practices that affect wildlife and fauna (we recently learned that extinctions are at an increasing pace) and flora. Sassen goes through a multiplicity of local instances and examples which can be mapped out below:

Expulsions from the biopshere (1)The fact that these instances of environmental degradation (that involves our now-familiar dynamic of inclusion / expulsions) can be found in a variety of political economies show that no system has a monopoly over bad environmental management.

Having gone through an enormous amount of data and a multiplicity of cases, Sassen pulls it all together in her concluding chapter where she explores more thoroughly the idea of systemic edge, whose key dynamic is incorporation (inclusion) / expulsion. The way I see it, Sassen uses incorporation / inclusion in two senses: (1) to describe the post-War period where redistribution mechanisms led to the incorporation of more actors within the system (minorities, women, etc.) and (2) as bringing something within the realm of the capitalist world-system (areas or sectors that were previous not included but now could, thanks to technology, institutions of global governance, etc.

But from her own examples, it is that second meaning that seems the most relevant at this point: inclusion comes at a price: expulsions in all the forms Sassen describes, be they social, economic, or ecological.This reads as very pessimistic as the book ends with the defining of the systemic edge as a space of expulsions, where the expelled are relegated. I guess her next book should be about that space since she spent this one describing the shrinking space at the system’s center.

Indeed, this is a very rich book that feel a bit unfinished. I do hope she gets to write Part II – Life at the Systemic Edge or some such title.

This is not an easy book but it is worth anyone’s while. What is important, I think, is how Sassen takes “stories” that most of us are now familiar with (the end of the Trente Glorieuses), the neoliberal turn, increase inequalities (a fertile topic before Picketty-mania stroke!), slum-ification of the global cities, environmental degradation, and then reconceptualizes them as part of a set of predatory formations. The strength of the book is, I think, in its deployment of Sassen’s conceptual apparatus. So, I wish this book got more play but not, it’s all Picketty all the time, and I’m concerned that this will eclipse a work that should receive greater publicity.

In any event, here is Sassen speaking about expulsions at the LSE:

herbertgansRGBSource: Sociology as a Vocation – Looking to the Future

“A good deal of work in measuring inequalities is already taking place but sociology needs to take a greater interest in its effects on America’s institutions and peoples. The micro-sociological aspects of economic, political and social aspects of inequality require more exploration than they have so far received. Whenever possible, sociological research should be policy-oriented. It cannot be expected to engage in actual public policy making, which is beyond the expertise of many sociologists. However, they can conduct research that helps answer questions raised by policy advocates, policy makers, analysts and critics of public policy dealing with inequality.

Since economists and political scientists still tend to deal with issues that concern the country’s elite, sociology must intensify its attention on the non-elite. Further research must be undertaken particularly with and about the most vulnerable Americans, notably the below median income population that will undoubtedly suffer more from rising inequalities than anyone else. Among them, those who are least well represented in and by the polity and most often left out of the public discourse, should come first.

Sociology cannot speak for these populations but it can focus more research attention on their problems. The studies should focus particularly on the social, emotional and other costs of the most important inequalities. For example, the last several decades, and the last few years especially, have seen a dramatic increase in downward mobility, the frustrations of aborted upward mobility and lowered expectations. Sociologists should long ago have begun to make the processes and effects of downward mobility a major research area.

In addition, sociologists need to pay more attention to the long-range effects of extreme poverty, such as hypotheses that suggest it can result in post-traumatic stress disorders that can last for several generations. At the same time, researchers should understand how people cope with, struggle against and try to resist downward mobility at the various levels of poverty. Properly designed, such studies may provide clues to policies and politics that can offer help.

Even more important, sociology’s concern with the below median income populations must also extend to the forces, institutions and agents that play major roles in keeping them in place and impoverishing them further. Studying the makers of increased inequality is as important a research topic as learning more about its victims.

Concurrently, sociologists should do more to demonstrate the social usefulness of the discipline. This is best done by providing new research findings and ideas relevant to currently topical subjects, issues and controversies. Although easier said than done, sociologists should place less emphasis on contributing to “the literature” and other disciplinary concerns. Fewer studies that unnecessarily elaborate the already known would also help.

Sociologists must also continue to explore topics that the rest of the social sciences are ignoring or do not even see. They should be undertaking more research on and in the backstages of society that do not interest or are hidden to other researchers.

Whenever possible, sociology should prioritize empirical work, quantitative and qualitative. Despite the increasing availability of Big Data, the discipline must continue to concentrate on the gathering and analysis of small data, particularly through ethnographic fieldwork. Understanding society by being with the people and in the groups and organizations that sociology studies is our distinctive contribution to Americans’ knowledge about their country.

The discipline ought also aim for innovative and adventurous theorizing, with frames and perspectives that question conventional wisdoms, such as labeling theory in the past and relational and constructionist theorizing more recently. The changes in the country generated by the currently rising inequalities may encourage and even require novel ways of looking at American society.

Above all, sociology must strive harder to reach the general public, by presenting new sociological ideas and findings that should be of interest to this public in clear, non-technical English.”

Göran Therborn published The Killing Fields of Inequality as what looks like an expanded version of a 2009 article on the same subject. And contrary to Picketty’s massive economic volume, Therborn’s book is short and sweet even though it covers some of the same territory. However, Therborn’s book focuses more on theoretical conceptualizations of inequality as well as its social consequences.

This is visible right off the bat in the way Therborn defines inequality:

“Inequality is a violation of human dignity; it is a denial of the possibility for everybody’s human capabilities to develop. It takes many forms, and it has many effects: premature death, ill-health, humiliation, subjection, discrimination, exclusion from knowledge or from mainstream social life, poverty, powerlessness, stress, insecurity, anxiety, lack of self-confidence and of pride in oneself, and exclusion from opportunities and life-chances. Inequality, then, is not just about the size of wallets. It is a socio-cultural order, which (for most of us) reduces our capabilities to function as human beings, our health, our self-respect, our sense of self, as well as our resources to act and participate in this world.” (1)

This is, I think, one of the most powerful statement of what equality truly is, beyond the relatively simplistic (and always contentious, nevertheless) economic indicators that do not capture the multi-layered nature of the impact, and mixing of cause and consequence, of inequality. But it is precisely this multi-layered nature that necessitates a more nuanced and inclusive approach to examining inequality, which is what Therborn focuses on:

  1. a multi-dimensional conceptualization of inequality;
  2. within a historical and global context;
  3. produced through a variety of mechanisms;
  4. and often countered by equalization mechanisms (which Therborn argues for).

The simple idea is that inequality is produced by a variety of mechanisms and is therefore not inevitable (like some weird atmospheric event) and certainly not desirable considering the social devastation it produces (which reproduces it at the same time). As such, equalization mechanisms are needed and available.

So, first of all, inequality means exclusion which comes in two forms:

Two main doors of social exclusion

Out of these, Therborn notes three different effects (click on the image for larger view):

The mechanisms through whichinequality tears society apart

To summarize:

“The social space for human development is carved up and restricted, above all for the disadvantaged, of course, but not only for them. Secondly, the inequality of ownership of, control of or access to economic resources means that what has been produced in a given society can easily be dissipated by the privileged few. Thirdly, inequality of economic resources and their political deployment has negated the nineteenth-century liberal fears of democracy: that citizens’ power would encroach upon private property. Instead, big property owners have, most of the time in most countries, been able to dictate what is ‘sound economic policy’.” (22)

The greater the inequality, the more of all three effects we will observe.

No conceptual work would be complete with some distinction and clarification although I do not find his conceptualization of the difference between difference and inequality persuasive:

Difference Inequality
Assumed or given Socially constructed
No commonality assumed Assumed commonality
No violation of norm of equality Violation of norm of equality
Difference can coexist with inequality

I have to say that I am not really convinced by this. Differences can be as socially constructed as inequalities and these inequalities can be constructing through othering, that is, by denying any commonality with the class of people being stuck at the bottom of the social ladder. Similarly, inequality is often based on some imposed norm of essential inequality (gender, for instance) whether that supposed essence is assumed to be religion, tradition, or nature.

How much equality do we need? Here, Therborn invokes Amartya Sen’s capability approach to punt: inequalities prevent billions of people from full human development. Therefore, the focus should be on increasing capability for all and reducing social bads.

The bulk of Therborn’s conceptual work goes to delineating the different types of inequalities (click on the image for a larger view):

Three kinds of inequalityAccording to Therborn, while the mechanisms of vital and resource inequalities have been amply studied, the social sciences have yet to give existential inequality the attention it deserves. On the one hand, I disagree: Therborn refers to sexism, racism, colonialism, etc. and those have been extensively studied. On the other hand, yes, there have been discussions within the social sciences regarding identity politics as existential inequality, so conceived, goes back to issues of privileges and disadvantages.

Resource inequality refers not just to economic matters but also education, all forms of cultural inequality, inequalities in symbolic and social capital, as well as inequalities of power.

Needless to say, the distinction is conceptual. There is no question that these different forms of inequalities overlap and influence each other, and have impacts on one another.

How are inequalities produced and maintained?

“Inequalities are produced and sustained socially by systemic arrangements and processes, and by distributive action, individual as well as collective. It is crucial to pay systematic attention to both. ‘Distributive action’ is here taken as any social action, individual as well as collective, with direct distributive consequences, be they actions of systemic advance or retardation, or of allocation / distribution.” (55)

Therborn identifies four such distributive actions, each involving both individual actions (what Therborn call ‘direct agency’) and systemic dynamics (click on the image for a larger view):

--Types of distributive action--I numbered these actions because Therborn see them as a cumulative continuum, with distanciation at one polar end, and exploitation at the other polar end of the continuum. Each layer adds more inequalities to the system, with exploitation (which includes slavery as extreme form) as the most unequal.

However, each one of these distributive actions can be countered by an equalizing mechanism:

--Types of equality mechanisms--

I numbered them to refer them to their respective distributive action (and like the distributive actions, these mechanisms can be individual or collective).

So, this is the basic conceptual apparatus that Therborn deploys to then get to the historical and empirical aspects of inequality, that is, match the concepts to the data. Note that the apparatus is more descriptive than predictive.

I have to say that this is where the book gets a bit tedious mostly because of the too-limited use of some data vizualization. It is really useless to read paragraphs and paragraphs of data. I wish these empirical sections had been better visualized. I think Therborn is going to lose a lot of non-specialist readers on that aspect alone even though it is a book that should get a wider audience than academic types.

That being said, Therborn reviews the data based on his inequality three-part apparatus. Regarding vital inequalities:

“For recent increases in vital inequality, there are two main suspects. One is increasing economic uncertainty and polarization, between the unemployed and the labour market marginalized, on the one hand, and the surfers on the boom waves, on the other. The other is nowadays often called ‘lifestyle’, but is better termed ‘life-options’. It is not so much a choice of style as a perspective of possible options. People who have little control of their basic life situation, of finding a job, of controlling their work context, of launching a life-course career, may be expected to be less prone to control the health of their bodies – to notice and to follow expert advice on tobacco, alcohol and other drugs, on diet and exercise – than people who have a sense of controlling their own lives.” (82-3)

Regarding existential inequalities:

“Even though blatant, institutionalized existential inequality, such as racism, sexism and ruthless developmentalism or ‘civilizing’ zeal, have been eroded, existential inequality is still permeating contemporary societies.

(…)

There are also current social tendencies driving new forms of existential inequality: de-industrialization outsourcing, immigration of the poor, and labour market marginalizations. Such tendencies are now directed against an ‘underclass’ of people marginalized or excluded from the labour market, the second generation of industrial immigrants, poor single mothers, the children of de-industrialized workers. In Britain, they have been given a new pejorative identity as the ‘chavs’ (Jones 2011). In a US conservative bestseller portrait, they are a new ‘lower class’, unmarried, lazy, dishonest and godless (Murray 2012). Class is here returning as an existential put-down.” (88-9)

[Note: I totally resent that Therborn cites Murray repeatedly, just positing him as a conservative rather than an awful racist who should have been banned for academic status ever since the publication of the giant pile of horse manure that is The Bell Curve.]

And as for resource inequalities, the story is well-known: deindustrialization, rise of financial capitalism, globalization and the rise of transnational forces able to undermine the social safety nets. On education, Therborn, I think Therborn engages in too much generalizing (for instance, that private systems are better at the primary and secondary levels). One cannot, on the one hand, deplore the persistence of educational gaps and not see the impact of private systems on such persistence.

As for power,

“Within nations, social movements, collective associations and wide-franchised elections – democratization, in short – have brought about a major equalization of political resources, once monopolized by monarchs and other despots. But, as with economic resources, political equalization has been stopped or reversed recently, by de-unionization, political party erosion, and general social dissolution of the popular classes. A difference from what has happened to economic resources, which are ever more concentrated, has been the rise of electronic social media and their possibilities of self-generated mass communication.” (99)

I think the jury is still out on that one. There may be a crisis of legitimation, but yesterday’s European Parliamentary elections show that the reaction is not one of demand for more democracy. Quite the opposite.

Therborn shows that progress on vital inequalities is still inadequate, even in some developed countries. At the same time, again, in developed countries, there has been considerable progress on existential inequality (gay rights, for instance), but I would argue that this has been at the expenses of resource inequalities. In other words, the power elite has figured out that they could keep on beating up on unions and the poor, as long as there was some (cost-free) progress on identity politics matters, there would be no class-based social movements to demand changes.

So where does this leave us:

“Violent revolutions, large-scale industrial wars, profound economic crisis – strong storms have been necessary to tame the ferocious anti-egalitarianism of late-feudal, patriarchal and modern capitalist societies. However, there has also been a fourth kind of egalitarian moment. Under certain circumstances, far-reaching peaceful social reform has been possible. This is obviously the experience most relevant to the current world.” (155)

And by fourth moment, Therborn mean “les trente glorieuses” (the post-WWII period until the 1980s) and the current political movement in Latin America.

When it comes to reducing inequalities, Therborn argues that this will require forces of equalization and that these can be divided in two: forces of demand (for equality) and forces of supply (those social actors who can actually deliver equalization) based on their motivations.

So, regarding these forces of demand, exit the labor movement and the working class, enter identify-based movements and what Therborn solidaristic individualism:

“Solidaristic individualism – ‘I want to choose my own lifestyle, but I am concerned about the possibilities of others to make their choice’ – is a vital force of equality. It provided the vibrant, albeit unsustainable, dynamic of the Occupy movements (see, further, Castells 2012; Mason 2012).” (162)

I think he is absolutely right on that.

What of the forces of supply, then?

“Equality derives basically from demand. But as social equality is a social force of cohesion, of combat as well as of development, it has its forces of supply, driven first of all by fear. There is the fear of the unequals, of their anger and their possible protests and rebellion. Secondly, there is the fear of the external enemy, the fear of not being up to the lethal capacity of the latter. Thirdly, there is the fear of backwardness, and projects of inclusive national development. While fear is a basic source of equalization measures by the powerful and privileged, it is not the only one. Ruling elites and/or their staff are not always fully absorbed by their own privileges and greed. They are not necessarily incapable of comprehensive visions and far-sighted strategic calculations – occasionally even of empathy with their subjects.” (163)

Again, here, I would argue that the elites have been able to continue the pursuit of resource inequalities by trading it for existential equalization.

For the future, Therborn sees three potential battlefields (and they are all institutional and systemic: family, capitalism, and nation as all three are essential in producing inequalities. There has been a lot of progress on the family front, not just with the redefinition of family in and of itself (and the progressive acceptance of multiple family forms) but also with respect to children’s rights. Ultimately, that battlefield is about individual rights to form families of one’s choice. When it comes to capitalism, though, Therborn goes back rights tied to labor and against precarization. Finally, the national battlefield goes to rights of citizens:

“Asserting the rights of citizens means, first of all, a vigorous defence of democracy, of people’s right to self-determination. Citizens have a right to assert their collective will regarding their economy and their environment over any private capital interests, or any anonymous global aggregation of, e.g., financial markets. The ongoing 2008 crisis, caused by an absence of any civic control over the opulent little world of reckless speculators and high-stake casino-gamblers, acted out more in Europe than in America, is the costliest defeat of the North Atlantic democracies since the German crash of 1931–3.” (173)

Therborn argues that these battlefields might not be primarily in developed countries but outside of the Global North. But he also thinks that certain factors will lead to fighting for equalization:

  1. the obvious cost of misery that is visible to all;
  2. the crisis of legitimation for the elite after they destroyed the economy;
  3. equality is good for society.

I am not so sure about #1, the rise of the Tea Party, and fascist parties all over Europe are precisely movements that are based on a complete lack of compassion for underdogs and victims of all forms of inequalities. They are based on resentment and hatred. That’s an extra obstacle that Therborn does not consider.

Yes, the elites have been somewhat discredited but the challenges have been limited: a threat of protest at commencement speech, the short-lived Occupy movement and Arab Spring movements. None of the contestation has led to any systemic change.

Yes, equality is good for society and there is ample data to prove it, but the dominant discourse is not that idea at all, and especially considering, again, my response to #1.

So, this is a book very much worth reading and important. I don’t agree with all of it. The conceptual apparatus is worth exploring and using. The diagnosis is sound, but the prescriptions, I think, are a bit too optimistic.

Nevertheless, I think this is required reading for all sociologists.

And while you’re at it, also go read Kathleen Geier’s review.

For the few of you who followed the Global Sociology Blog, you know that Zygmunt Bauman is one of my favorite sociologist. His liquid modernity thesis has long fascinated me in the context of the global risk society, characterized by individualization as neoliberal policies progressively dismantle the social safety net.

Social risks become all the more prevalent as states lose their ability to provide stable and secure living conditions. States are now “spaces of flows (p. 135).” Arjun Appadurai (1996) delineates these flows (or “scapes”) as part of the process of globalization. These scapes are independent of any particular nation-states. They comprise mediascapes (flow of information through the mass media, television, the Internet), financescapes (flow of capital through the global financial system), technoscapes (flow of technology or flows made easier thanks to technology), ethnoscapes (flow of people, immigration, refugees, tourists), and ideoscapes (flow of ideas such as consumerism, market, democracy).

Such flows shape individuals’ lives both positively (greater access to knowledge and information) and negatively (insecurity generated by financescapes, precarization of work), each scape creating its own type of risks. The solidity of the state is undermined by the “liquidity” of flows since they are transnational, transborder phenomena. This is what prompted Zygmunt Bauman (2000) to describe the first modernity as heavy or solid modernity, as opposed to the liquid late modernity, which is the condition of globalization.

As Bauman indicates, in liquid society, power now is related to the capacity to travel light and to uproot instantly. This creates a new form of inequalities: to paraphrase Bauman, those free to move without notice rule. A new principle of social division is not just related to wealth versus poverty but to mobility versus immobility. This discrepancy between a free, mobile, volatile capital and a tied-down, territorial labor partly explains the current state of weakness of organized labor. There is no longer a mutual dependency or mutual engagement.

As Bauman puts it (2000), “capital can travel fast and travel light and its lightness and motility have turned into the paramount source of uncertainty for all the rest. This has become the present-day basis of domination and the principal factor of social divisions” (p. 121). Therefore, the current logic in corporations is downsizing and phasing out. Correlatively, the modern nation-state, being territorial by definition, becomes equally powerless to control let alone shape the global flows or scapes defined above. Liquidity and scapes are not simply phenomena affecting the large-scale aspects of the social structure. They also have deep impacts on people’s lives, mostly through the process of individualization.

In his analysis of liquid modernity, Bauman (2000) asserts that two features characterized liquid modernity. One is the end of what he calls an “early modern illusion:” the idea that history had an end where society would achieve a stage of perfection, the expression of the good society (p. 29). This assumption was present in early modern social thinkers such as Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer and Karl Marx. Liquid modernity involves the end of such notion of collective progress.

The other feature is what Bauman (2000) calls “deregulation and privatization.” Any improvement to be made in living conditions is no longer seen as the job of the modern state but is more and more left to the efforts of individuals. The end of a progressive conception of society means that any idea of the “good society” has shifted to the idea of “human rights,” from the social realm to the individual. The result, for Bauman, is that, if individuals are freer to determine their own idea of happiness, it is also entirely up to them to achieve it and any failure will be attributed to their own shortcomings. In this sense, any notion of emancipation is no longer a social project to be achieved collectively but an individual task, with new experts (life coaches, therapists and counselors of all sorts, such as the omnipresent Doctor Phil) to guide individuals along the way. Furthermore, individual fulfillment will involve some form of consumption. Paraphrasing Peter Drucker, Bauman (2000:30) puts it this way, “no more salvation by society” (p. 30).

As presented in Aldous Huxley’s (1936) Brave New World and George Orwell’s (1948) 1984, solid modernity dystopia depicted the loss of individuality as the major source of fear. There inherent totalitarian tendencies of solid modernity have not materialized. In fact, just the opposite seems to be occurring. Bauman (2000) contends that it is the emergence of individualization rather than the totalitarian nightmare that is the mark of liquid modernity. Individualization means that members of society can no longer count on social safety nets or the welfare state to negotiate the impact of risks on their lives (such as a job loss, loss of pensions and savings to the insecurities of the market). Liquid modernity leaves them “free” to figure out solutions on their own. Individuals are left to deal with societal and systemic conditions as part of their own individual life-projects. As Bauman (2000) writes, “risks and contradictions go on being socially produced; it is just the duty and the necessity to cope with them which are being individualized” (34).

I think Kevin Moore‘s great toon perfectly captured this set of interrelated ideas:

zygmunt-bauman

Goran Therborn is, in my not-so-humble opinion, one of the greatest contemporary sociologists around. I wish he was more famous outside of sociology. So, here is a good way to introduce him to audiences of students and others that might not have heard of him: a series of 10 short videos put out by Polity Press (Therborn’s main publisher, and a favorite of mine). The full playlist is embedded below. Polity also has a great Youtube channel that you should all subscribe to.

Enjoy and share:

Obviously, Immanuel Wallerstein belongs in the prestigious list of cranky sociologists. His conceptualization and critical analysis of the modern capitalist world-system provides a powerful framework to understand global capitalism.

Thankfully, Kevin Moore perfectly illustrated the idea of the world-system as a globally integrated entity, where natural resources are sucked out of the periphery, where labor and manufacturing power are extracted from the semi-periphery, to create goods to be consumed in the core. Periphery, semi-periphery and core are not countries, but areas, that are globally distributed. Indeed, as Saskia Sassen has long demonstrated, one can find the three types of areas in global cities, especially in the Global South.

Of course, the core is not limited to that ‘absorption’ function. And the cartoon also has a third pod or leg illustrating what comes out of the core towards the other areas: capital, garbage, and money and weapons for the useful warlord-du-jour as long as he gives access to whatever resource he controls and the core needs.

wallerstein

Wallerstein takes his rightful place in the Gallery.

Max Weber deserves a place in the cranky sociologist gallery. His analysis on the disenchantment of the world through rationalization and bureaucratization is still highly relevant. In particular, his insight on the dehumanizing character of rationalized production of blue-collar or white-collar work is central.

This is why, when I asked Kevin Moore (who, again, produced the great toon below) to draw Weber, I also referred to the opening scene of Charles Chaplin’s Modern Times as the perfect illustration of the dehumanization of workers through rationalized processes of production.

The first 20 minutes or so are especially revealing, from the relentless pace of the Taylorized assembly line and the repetitive, scientifically measured movements, to the surveillance through technology, through the attempt at rationalizing even further the lunch period through science and technology, and the worker finally becoming literally a cog in the machine. This entire first part is quintessentially Weberian.

And so, Kevin Moore came with this brilliant toon:

max-weber

You can find the image and all the others in the gallery.

Those of you who were readers of the Global Sociology Blog know that I am a strong fan of Manuel Castells (who isn’t). I started reading the book on the left, Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in The Internet Age. No surprise here, Castells has always emphasized the importance of social movements in the network society as resistance to increasing political and corporate power.

This particular book though is not one of these monumental Weberian treatises that Castells has produced over the last decades. Rather, it is a work of public sociology, aimed at a general audience. The choice of this topic is well in line with Castells’s interest, amplified by his loose involvement with Spanish indignidados movement in response to Spain’s economic collapse and subsequent drastic austerity measures that have devastated society.

Because social movements are always about resistance to some form of power, Castells begins the book by defining this concept, so important in sociology:

“Power relationships are constitutive of society because those who have power construct the institutions of society according to their values and interests. Power is exercised by means of coercion (the monopoly of violence, legitimate or not, by the control of the state) and/or by the construction of meaning in people’s minds, through mechanisms of symbolic manipulation. Power relations are embedded in the institutions of society, and particularly in the state. However, since societies are contradictory and conflictive, wherever there is power there is also counterpower, which I understand to be the capacity of social actors to challenge the power embedded in the institutions of society for the purpose of claiming representation for their own values and interests. All institutional systems reflect power relations, as well as the limits to these power relations as negotiated by an endless historical process of conflict and bargaining. The actual configuration of the state and other institutions that regulate people’s lives depends on this constant interaction between power and counterpower.” (5)

Distinguishing between hard and soft power, Castells argues that soft power works best:

“The construction of meaning in people’s minds is a more decisive and more stable source of power. (…) Torturing bodies is less effective than shaping minds.’ (5)

Social movements emerge when power creates injustice. What forms does injustice take?

“In each specific context, the usual horses of humanity’s apocalypses ride together under a variety of their hideous shapes: economic exploitation, hopeless poverty, unfair inequality, undemocratic polity, repressive states, unjust judiciary, racism, xenophobia, cultural negation, censorship, police brutality, warmongering, religious fanaticism (often against others’ religious beliefs), carelessness towards the blue planet (our only home), disregard for personal liberty, violation of privacy, gerontocracy, bigotry, sexism, homophobia and other atrocities in the long gallery of portraits featuring the monsters we are. And of course, always, in every instance and in every context, sheer domination of males over females and their children, as the primary foundation of a/n unjust social order. Thus, social movements always have an array of structural causes and individual reasons to rise up against one or many of the dimensions of social domination.” (12)

Emphasis mine: Castells gets it.

One could spend an entire semester just dissecting these few quotes.

More to come on this.

By SocProf.

In case you missed it, Peter Thompson, over at The Guardian, has an 8-part series on the Frankfurt School which makes nice and relatively easy reading on this subject for undergraduate students.

Part 1 is a basic introduction triggered by a mass killer’s ramblings:

“When Anders Breivik launched his murderous attack in Norway in July 2011, he left behind a rambling manifesto which attacked not only what he saw as Europe’s Islamicisation but also its undermining by the cultural Marxism of the Frankfurt school. So what is the Frankfurt school? Has its influence has been as deep as Breivik feared and many of the rest of us have hoped?

Many will have heard of the most prominent names from that tradition: Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and Max Horkheimer, but its reach goes much further, taking in many of the 20th century’s most important continental philosophers and socio-political developments.

The Frankfurt school was officially called the Institute for Social Research and was attached to the University of Frankfurt but functioned as an independent group of Marxist intellectuals who sought, under the leadership of Felix Weil, to expand Marxist thought beyond what had become a somewhat dogmatic and reductionist tradition increasingly dominated by both Stalinism and social democracy. Most famously they sought to marry up a combination of Marxist social analysis with Freudian psychoanalytical theories, searching for the roots of what made people tick in modern consumer capitalist society as well as what made people turn to fascism in the 1930s.

(…)

Paradoxically it is that great enemy of the Frankfurt school, Breivik, who is the perfect example of the authoritarian personality Adorno wrote about: obsessed with the apparent decline of traditional standards, unable to cope with change, trapped in a hatred of all those not deemed part of the in-group and prepared to take action to “defend” tradition against degeneracy. More worryingly, especially set against the rise of groups like Golden Dawn in Greece and widespread trends towards the fear of Islam in mainstream society, Adorno maintained that “personality patterns that have been dismissed as ‘pathological’ because they were not in keeping with the most common manifest trends or the most dominant ideals within a society, have, on closer investigation, turned out to be but exaggerations of what was almost universal below the surface in that society. What is ‘pathological’ today may, with changing social conditions, become the dominant trend of tomorrow.”

Part 2 focuses on negative dialectics.

Theodor Adorno opens his treatise on negative dialectics with the statement that “[it] is a phrase that flouts tradition. As early as Plato, dialectics meant to achieve something positive by means of negation; the thought figure of the ‘negation of the negation’ later became the succinct term. This book seeks to free dialectics from such affirmative traits without reducing its determinacy.” In other words, he asks us to reject the idea that the outcome of the dialectic will always be positive but that we do so without leaving the dialectic behind as an explanatory model. We simply have to make it an open rather than a closed process.”

Part 3 focuses on Adorno and Horckheimer’s Dialectic of the Enlightenment:

Dialectic of Enlightenment, perhaps the central text of the Frankfurt school, was written by Adorno and Max Horkheimer during these years in exile. It arrives at a pessimistic view of what can be done against a false system which, through the “culture industry”, constantly creates a false consciousness about the world around us based on myths and distortions deliberately spread in order to benefit the ruling class.

This is, of course, not peculiar to capitalism, but in capitalism it finds its full commodified form so that we become the willing consumers and reproducers of our own alienation by becoming consumers rather than producers of culture. It is probably a good thing that they didn’t live to see The X Factor and OK! magazine. For Adorno and Horkheimer, authentic culture is not simply to be equated with high culture, which is equally commodified. Authentic culture directly resists commodification and punishes audiences for expecting to be entertained.

(…)

Their view is that fascism, Stalinism and consumer capitalism all produced the widespread socialisation of the means of production and the corporatisation of the economy, with a central role for the state. This convergence had done away with the worst excesses of class exploitation and replaced it with a sort of social complicity between the classes undergirded by recourse to mythologies and ideological control.

This control is exercised not only through direct repression but through the apparently non-ideological aspects of our everyday lives, in particular the ways in which modernity encourages us to fulfil and pursue our desires rather than have them crushed and controlled. Here, de Sade is brought in along with Nietzsche to demonstrate how modernity and the Enlightenment have brought about the transvaluation of all values and undermined all traditions. Marx also noted that in capitalism “all that is solid melts into air”. What is often misunderstood on this point is that the Frankfurt School were not the cause of the apparent breakdown of social values but were drawing attention to the way in which capitalism was ineluctably smashing up the old certainties. At the same time as making us enjoy the experience as an extension of our libido we also feel guilty about and transfer the blame for it onto anyone but ourselves.”

Part 4 is devoted to Herbert Marcuse:

“Marcuse linked economic exploitation and the commodification of human labour with a wider concern about the ways in which generalised commodity production (Marx’s basic description of a capitalist society) was at one and the same time creating a massive surplus of wealth through economic and technological development and an acceleration of the process of reducing humanity down to the level of a mere cog in the machine of that production.

How was it, Marcuse asked, that the totalising administered state, which he saw at work in western societies, got away with it? It did this through what he called “repressive tolerance“. This is the theory that in order to control people more effectively it is necessary to give them what they need in material terms as well as to let them have what they think they need in cultural, political and social terms.

Parliamentary democracy, he maintains for example, is merely a sham, a game played out in order to give the impression that people have a say in the way that society works. Behind this facade however, he maintained that the same old powers were still at work and, indeed, that through their tolerance of dissent, debate, apparent cultural and political freedom had managed to refine and increase their exploitation of human labour power without anyone really noticing.”

Part 5  focuses on Walter Benjamin:

“For Benjamin the role of the symbolic in art thus takes on a transitional historical role. His work on the Baroque, for example, posits it as the turning point between medieval religiosity and renaissance secularisation and the Trauerspiel (Mourning-Play) of that period, with its obsession with violence and death, reflects the growing yet still largely unconscious realisation that there is no happy end in heaven and that – as Bloch puts it – death becomes the harshest of all anti-utopias. Art and culture in his era though, in the era of what he hoped was the transition from capitalism to socialism, had to grasp the dual possibilities of technology so that it could be harnessed not to master nature but to master the relationship between humanity and nature.

This means that art had to take on a political role in increasing the awareness of what was at long last the real human potential for the realisation of the old dreams. It could go either way though; down the Adornian route from the slingshot to the megaton bomb or onwards and upwards to the sunlit uplands of social liberation. Art and technology therefore become interlinked and politicised, predominantly in film. The “aura” of traditional art may have been destroyed by modernity but the future “aura” of liberated humanity as a living work of art had to take its place. If fascism represented the aestheticisation of politics then the fight against fascism had to involve the politicisation of aesthetics and the active creation of the aura of potential.”

Part 6 focuses on Ernst Bloch:

“Bloch’s magnum opus was a three-volume compendium entitled The Principle of Hope in which he lays out the myriad ways in which hope and the human desire for liberation and fulfilment appear in our everyday lives. As we can see from the quote above he did not agree with Adorno’s increasing cultural pessimism, never gave up on the idea of the transformative power of political action by the working class and the new social movements and was, as a result, even more of a darling of the 1968 movement than was Herbert Marcuse. However, Bloch did not approach hope and utopia from a naively optimistic standpoint. He was well aware of the problems that faced those who wish to negate the negation and move forward. His book on the rise of fascism in the 1930s, Heritage of Our Times, attacked both the orthodox Marxist left and his friends in the Frankfurt school for not realising that fascism was, in his words, a perverted religious movement which won people over with quasi-utopian ideas about the wonders of a future Reich.”

Part 7 centers on the potential contemporary inheritors of the Frankfurt School – Honneth and Habermas:

“Habermas originally based himself in a critical Hegelian Marxist approach but by the late 1960s had moved away from the concerns of the first generation. By 1979 he said that he did not share “the premise that instrumental reason has gained such dominance that there is really no way out of a total system of delusion in which insight is achieved only in flashes by isolated individuals.”

Rather than maintaining that nothing could be done to improve conditions until capital had been dislodged and replaced by a socialist system he was much more interested in finding ways in which the public sphere could be gradually transformed into a space where domination by the media and the big ideological apparatuses of the system could be replaced by interactive and intersubjective dialogue from below.”

And part 8 wraps things up:

“The final question for this series is whether any of the issues brought up by the Frankfurt school still have any currency or importance. There are two distinct periods in the work of the Frankfurt school. On the one hand there is the attempt to explain and understand fascism as it was arising during the Weimar Republic. This was a period of social, economic and political dislocation that brought to the fore very real material concerns on the part of workers that could easily be channelled into a traditional search for scapegoats and simple explanations. During this period, however, there continued to exist a powerful workers’ movement in the form of social democracy and communism which, had it been able to overcome the timidity of the former and the strategic incompetence of the latter, could have functioned as a bulwark against the rise of the extreme right.

The second period is that of the postwar years, in which there was a social consensus that was formed under the umbrella of the cold war and rising prosperity (what the French call Les Trente Glorieuses) and in which it was declared that class and class struggle had come to an end. Frankfurt school theories about commodification, alienation, reification and false consciousness were revived by the 1968 movement as a way of explaining away the apparent passivity of the working class. Indeed, it was during this period that the working class began to be seen as part of the problem rather than the solution. The forward march of labour was halted, social democratic and communist parties accommodated to the new consensus and, as the philosopher André Gorz had it, it was “farewell to the working class”.

(…)

The problem now is that the two original periods that characterised the battleground for the Frankfurt school exist at one and the same time. We have the economic dislocation of the Weimar period with rates of unemployment in Europe rising constantly (Spain, for example, has reached over 50% youth unemployment), which is feeding into a rise of neo-fascist and rightwing parties from Golden Dawn to Ukip. At the same time there is a supine centre-left which is tied into the neoliberal agenda, while a fractured and fragmented “communist” movement (for want of a better word) has failed to put together a convincing alternative.

 The great recession since 2008 has stripped away a lot of the illusions people have about the society they live in. When a government needs to proclaim that “we are all in this together”, then it is clear what the true subtext actually is.

But perhaps even more seriously, the planet itself can no longer afford the constant expansion required by capital. We have the technological and financial means to solve pretty well all of the basic problems of humanity. What we don’t have is the political will. But that is only missing because even our hopes for the future have become privatised and commodified. Our dreams have been bought up and sold back to us as glittery tat and royal weddings.

(…)

That loss of hope and optimism about a better world is the most depressing outcome of the current crisis and it is no wonder that many seek refuge in the false nostalgia of an unspoiled world before the ravages of capitalism prompted “all that is solid to melt into air“.

But there is no way back, not least because the golden age never existed and the golden dawn will never come. The only way is to push forward using science, reason, intelligence and hope. Weak power may be good enough for now but at some point someone is going to have to flex muscle. Let’s make sure that it is the good guys and not the fascists again.”

Read the whole thing and be amazed how the current relevance of the Frankfurt School in analyzing our times.

This is the latest installment in the cranky sociologists cartoon series by Kevin Moore.

This time, it is the founding father himself, Emile Durkheim, that gets the Moore treatment to illustrate Durkheim’s concern over the rise of anomie and individualism accompanying the industrial revolution, and its impact on social solidarity, integration and collective conscience.

Durkheim joins the other cranky sociologists in the gallery.

By SocProf.

This is the latest in cartoonist Kevin Moore‘s series of cranky sociologists for this blog: the man himself, C. Wright Mills, especially with regards to the power elite. It perfectly (and awesomely) illustrates Mills’ idea that “Prestige is the shadow of money and power.” Click on the image for a larger version.

Let me repost what I wrote about the power elite when I reviewed Stanley Aronowitz’s book.

It is in its fifth chapter that Stanley Aronowitz‘s Taking It Big – C. Wright Mills and The Making of Political Intellectuals deals with the power elite. The power elite seems an obvious concept and reality to many of us but maybe we forget how against-the-grain the idea was when Mills put it on the sociological table:

“The Power Elite is a description of the structure of power in American society that disagrees with most sociology and academic political science by denying that power is widely dispersed among a welter of interest groups. Mills argues that at the national level power is highly concentrated among large corporations, the military, and the highest political “directorate.”” (168).

… And the critical reception the idea got:

“In his reply to critics, published almost two years after the appearance of the book, Mills states that its contents should be understood as an “elaborated hypothesis but based on acknowledged fact. There is no other way to write now, as a social student, about such large topics.” Taken as a whole, reviewers who criticized Mills from the liberal center and from professional disciplinary standpoints were, with few exceptions, taken aback by the boldness of the thesis and the scope of the analysis. As Mills well understood, this was a period when “social students” had retreated from taking on large topics and were settling in to a regime of truth that confined itself to what were called “measurable” hypotheses. This will to scientism inevitably condemned social studies to the intellectual politics of the small scale, a place that Mills refused to go.” (169)

It is indeed a bit funny that now pretty much every introduction to sociology textbook starts with Mills (especially the sociological imagination, of course), but, from Aronowitz’s book, one gets the clear view that Mills was always the odd man out of American sociology in the era of Parsons / Merton dominance. And also, one should also keep in mind that there is a definite conservative bent to the “will to scientism” (and probably an implicit recognition of the subordinate status of sociology in the field of social sciences).

But mostly, the concept of the power elite is an obliteration of the then-dominant pluralistic thesis:

“By suggesting a hierarchical model of power, pluralism has a place in his paradigm, but only at the middle and local levels. Mills vehemently denies that national power is subject to the influence of interest groups. The main reason is that foreign policy has assumed an overwhelming importance in the constitution of national power, and few, if any, of these interest groups are even concerned with the issues of war, the attendant military ascendancy, or the economic position of key U.S. corporations in world affairs. In fact, as discussed earlier, Mills had discovered that organized labor, the most important of these interests after 1946, willingly fell in line with its government’s global economic and military policies. Apart from patriotism and profound anticommunist sentiments, workers gained from defense contracts, while the “labor aristocracy” of skilled workers benefited from U.S. economic global hegemony.” (170)

On that basis, Mills is very (philosophically) pragmatic in his conception of power:

“Mills is not making any claims about the nature of power, except to identify the men of power by their “position to make decisions having major consequences. They rule the big corporations. They run the machinery of the state and claim its prerogatives. They direct the military establishment. They occupy the strategic command posts of the social structure.” There is no attempt to define power in terms of “human nature” or invariant laws.” (171)

And Aronowitz makes clear the place of The Power Elite in the larger project by Mills of defining power in the social structure as a way of identifying potential agents of change (even if this ends up with pessimistic gloom). There is truly a trilogy of social structure / power and /change that runs through all three major works:

“Almost all of Mills’s writing had a political intent. As we have seen, beyond exploring the social and political dimensions of their subjects, The New Men of Power and White Collar were steps in Mills’s project of finding and evaluating potential agents of social change. In this respect, The Power Elite, the third volume of his trilogy on social structure, continues the project, but with some fundamental differences. The giant financial corporations, the political directorate, and the military are the real decision makers of society and generally understand themselves as powerful on the national stage. A decade after he began work on labor leaders, Mills finds them “integrated” into the dominant institutional orders rather than as independent social actors leading a potential army of regime changers. Thus, labor leaders and their organizations have become “dependent variables” of the three major institutional orders of power. “The United States now has no labor leaders who carry any weight of consequence in decisions of importance to the political outsiders now in charge of the visible government.” Like portions of the fading “old” middle class (mainly but not exclusively farmers), the unions, once insurgent, had settled after the war for places in what Mills terms the “middle levels” of power. As for the various strata of white-collar employees of the new middle class, Mills concludes that, far from forming a new pole of economic and political power, they constitute a primary base for the emerging mass society: slaves of consumerism, fragmented by occupational hierarchies and differential credentials, alienated from themselves as much as their work, and even more powerless than unions.” (172)

Here, the influence of the Frankfurt School is pretty obvious. In addition, the middle level of the power fulfills an ideological and legitimizing function more than an actual active one. This is indeed still very much the case today:

“By “middle level of power,” Mills connotes the Congress, which generally responds to the welter of interest groups—farmers, unions, educational interests, consumer groups, veterans, and so forth—seeking benefits or redress of their grievances from the federal government. In an age when executive authorities have all but monopolized the crucial decisions, mainly those that have to do with war and the direction of the national economy, Congress is the main site of the middle level of national power. It is called upon to ratify decisions—and preemptive actions—taken by the political directorate, in close consultation with the military and the leading corporate capitalist interests. But even the leaders of Congress, who are legally empowered—and obliged—to review and revise executive decisions, are often kept in the dark about policies and initiatives taken unilaterally by government agencies, especially intelligence services and the military.” (172)

There is also a propagandistic dimension to this (and while this is not mentioned in the book, it is clear it is the main function of the media systems):

“The elevation of the very rich and corporate executives to celebrity status alongside the usual glitterati of entertainers and politicians was for Mills a marker of the degree to which American civilization has been given over almost entirely to money and power.” (176)

I would argue that celebrity status is now granted not just to corporate superstars like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates but also to higher ranking members of the military establishment, often described as intellectual and physical Übermenschen. Think about the media fawning over the intellectual prowess of David Petraeus (before his downfall) or the fact that Stanley McCrystal ate only once a day (once a day!!). In previous decades, the same was granted to Colin Powell.

Interestingly, elevation to celebrity status is only granted to two out of three types of actors of the power elite: corporate and military, but not political actors. These always suffer from a legitimation crisis even though they might receive celebrity status while campaigning as Barack Obama did (I would argue that Obama’s elite function is to neutralize significant rising systemic opposition in the context of economic collapse where there might be a political opening for truly alternative movements, while pursuing neoliberal policies with liberal support despite massive legitimation crisis). This is a marker, I think, of their subservient status to corporate and military elites, often seen as free from criticism (unless they defraud other celebrities, like Bernie Madoff did).

“Today, many members of the U.S. Senate are certified millionaires, and a few major public officials are, like Bloomberg, billionaires. Following Mills’s schema, their fortunes derive either from inheritance or from their positions as corporate investors and executives. In either case, their direct entrance into political office signifies the merger of powerful institutional orders. Along with the rise of the tycoon-politician, there was also the advent of the soldier-politician.” (177)

Think again about Colin Powell and David Petraeus (and to a lesser extent, Wesley Clark). And obviously, corporate celebrities do not need to actually bother to run for office (and win) to influence public policy. They can create influential foundations to push their agenda without any mechanisms of accountability or legitimacy to do so (see: Bill and Melinda Gates, and the other wealthy members of the elite who write them big checks, like Warren Buffett).

This also reminds me of this infographic on the rise of the Goldman Sach’s men as masters of the Eurozone:

“The top of the economic order is indeed dominated by the corporate rich, which includes property owners and high managers. Together they make the decisions that rule much of the U.S. economy and are participants in “broader economic and political interests” that go beyond those of a single firm or managerial stratum. So the concept of “elite” includes but does not repudiate class; it redefines it.” (179)

I would argue that it not only redefines class but it integrates gender and race as well.

“Most professional politicians and the institutions they control have been relegated to the middle level of power. So, perhaps with the exception of the president of the United States and some key members of his cabinet who interact with the military and economic orders, the political directorate appears not to be distinct from the military or the large corporate elites.” (179-180)

As neatly illustrated by this other infographic (click on it for ginormous view):

So, what does this leave us with?

“As for the individual voter—the ultimate ideal sovereign of democratic societies—under conditions where the active public is all but dissolved, she is far removed from centers of decision, even though required to confer consent on those occupying decisive positions of national power. And even if Congress remains, at least constitutionally, the necessary institution of consent of the broad policies of the executive, it has lost its role as the main source of initiative and decision, especially at a time when the global rather than national politics is the main center.” (180)

Now, I am sure one could argue that this is not true and just look at what the evil Republicans are doing in Congress right now, obstructing presidential initiatives, etc. However, especially in these days of “fiscal cliff”, we all know this is political theater, right? This a manufactured crisis designed to push through further austerity, and provided media ideological cover.

And for Mills, intellectuals and academics are not blameless (even though he had some hope for them as agents of change… we all know better now, don’t we?):

“Beyond ideology, there are practical motives for the power elite to try to win the loyalty of intellectuals. Technology has become the bread and butter of business as much as war. Humanists—those trained in literature, philosophy, and history—have, in addition to scientists and engineers, been among the pioneers of new technologies associated with communications such as cybernetics and other electronic innovations. We are familiar with the phrase “knowledge is power,” but Mills was skeptical of the assertion that the bearers of knowledge were fated to occupy high positions in the power arrangements of U.S. society. Instead, he argued that even as industry, the military, and the state increasingly relied on expertise, especially those who possessed scientific and technological knowledge, the power elite was in a position to buy knowledge and employ those who possessed it, thereby placing intellectuals and experts in a subordinate position. Moreover, the growing importance of information technology by the 1950s provided major incentives to giant corporations to engage actively in education and increase their role and control of scholars and intellectuals.” (182)

And, of course, any elite, as Bourdieu taught us, must have mechanisms guaranteeing its reproduction:

“But there is another set of motives for the emergence of what Martin Kenney, following the suggestions of Mills and Thorstein Veblen, termed “the university/industrial complex.” The elite is interested in guaranteeing its own continuity and survival. Its formation, in addition to inherited wealth, relies heavily on a select group of elite prep schools, Ivy League universities, and other select institutions, such as Stanford. Mills notes that becoming a Harvard, Yale, or Princeton graduate is taken by corporate executives as a sign of candidature for entrance into the elite just as the high military officer corps is recruited, overwhelmingly, from the three main military academies: West Point, Annapolis, and the Air Force Academy. We might add that of the many professional schools that train business executives, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, the Wharton School of Pennsylvania, and Stanford also occupy special positions. Additionally, the law programs of these institutions confer elite status to its students. So it is not only the ties of practical technological alliances that bind some universities to the power elite; it is also what Pierre Bourdieu was later to term the acquisition of various forms of intellectual and social “capital,” whose components go beyond the curriculum. The Harvard or Yale undergraduate and professional student typically acquires a set of values, attitudes, and orientations that prepares him or her for being considered potential members of the power elite.” (182-183)

Add habitus to social capital as well.

“The fundamental condition for preventing the rise of a highly centralized power elite—and the concomitant submergence of the institutions of popular will—is for Mills, as for Dewey, democracy, which entails rough political equality for individuals and which is not necessarily fulfilled by the practice of voting or by representative institutions such as legislatures. As we have seen, these representative institutions retain their limited viability at a level below national power, but given the position of the main elites atop a world in which wars—actual and potential—and the global economy dominate politics, only an alert, critical, and active public can hope to thwart the further erosion of democratic participation.” (184)

I would also add that local politics is just as problematic as the national level. One need only look at the nonsense that comes out of state legislatures and school boards to realize that subsidiarity is not always best.

“Mills assures us that America is not fully a mass society nor was it ever mainly a community of publics. But he is plainly disturbed to discover that a highly effective media of mass communication (later he is to term these “the cultural apparatus”), consumerism, the decline of voluntary associations that once afforded people the chance to articulate their concerns and views, and the segregation and isolation of large chunks of the population have combined to vitiate the chance that an “articulate public” can challenge the power elite. Rejecting a connotation of conspiracy, the institutional trends that together contribute to making the public a “phantom” are a consequence of drift rather than motive. Equally important is Mills’s analysis of the demise of the old middle class as an independent social and political force—the historical public in American life—and the failure of the new middle class to fill that space, which prepared the ground for the massification process now in full swing.” (185-186)

Heck, that is a question to which Brad Delong still can’t find an answer. The system is delegitimized thanks to the economic collapse triggered by elite behavior but, at the same time that cultural battles are going the liberal way (gay marriage), the cultural underpinnings of the world system are still solidly in place through media concentration and successful propagation of the neoliberal and individualistic ideologies (what Bauman calls “the liquid society”).

And then, there is this (a perfect illustration, in my view):

“It was more sophisticated than we had imagined: new documents show that the violent crackdown on Occupy last fall – so mystifying at the time – was not just coordinated at the level of the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and local police. The crackdown, which involved, as you may recall, violent arrests, group disruption, canister missiles to the skulls of protesters, people held in handcuffs so tight they were injured, people held in bondage till they were forced to wet or soil themselves –was coordinated with the big banks themselves.”

How can one not get cranky in the face of a triumphant power elite?